How 165 words could make massive environmental destruction an international crime
Mass destruction of the environment, known as ecocide, would become an international crime similar to genocide and war crimes under a proposed new legal definition.
The unveiling of the definition last week by a panel of 12 lawyers from around the world marks a great first step in the global campaign’s efforts to prevent future environmental disasters like Amazon deforestation or actions that contribute to climate change. .
There are currently four main international crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and the crime of aggression. These crimes are dealt with by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Independent Expert Panel for the Legal Definition of Ecocide spent six months preparing the 165-word definition, working with external experts throughout the process. In a draft definition from the Stop Ecocide Foundation, a Netherlands-based coalition, panelists said they hoped the proposed definition could provide a basis for examining a new international crime.
So what is the proposed definition?
The draft defines ecocide as “illegal or indiscriminate acts committed with the knowledge that there is a substantial probability of serious and widespread or long-term damage to the environment caused by such acts”.
Unlike the four existing international crimes, ecocide is said to be the only crime for which human harm is not a precondition for prosecution.
“There are elements of human damage that can be included in (the definition), but this also extends to damage, per se, to ecosystems,” said Jojo Mehta, president and co-founder of the Stop Ecocide Foundation. . “So effectively, you are looking at something that has, at least in part, the potential to be a crime against nature, not just a crime against people.”
The original ecocide proposal is almost 50 years old
The intention to make ecocide an international crime is not new. The idea was brought up by then Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972. In his speech, he warned that rapid industrial progress could deplete resources. natural at unsustainable levels. But even before that, biologist and bioethicist Arthur Galston used the word “ecocide” at the 1970 Conference on War and National Responsibility in Washington, DC.
Several other attempts to formalize ecocide as an international crime have emerged since then. Ecocide was considered and then abandoned when the ICC was officially created in 1998. For 10 years until her death in 2019, Scottish lawyer Polly Higgins campaigned for ecocide to be recognized as a crime against humanity. The Stop Ecocide Foundation took up the challenge in 2017.
A proposed definition is only the start of a long process
What would it take for the ICC to adopt the definition of ecocide and amend the Rome Statute? A lot. Here are the steps to follow:
- One of 123 member countries of the International Criminal Court (which does not include the United States, China or India) should submit a definition to the United Nations Secretary General
- The proposal must then be voted on by a majority of the ICC members at the annual meeting in December to be taken into consideration.
- Once the final text of an amendment has been discussed and approved, two-thirds of member countries must vote in favor.
- The vote is ratified and must be applied in countries a year later. Although it becomes a criminal offense in countries where it is ratified, ratifying countries can arrest non-nationals on their own soil for ecocide crimes committed elsewhere. This means that citizens of countries that are not members of the ICC could still be affected.
Between the formal proposal of a crime of ecocide by a member country and ratification, however, an amendment process could take years, if not decades. The court would hold a vote at its annual meeting in December to consider the proposal, and after that, debates would begin to finalize the definition of the crime.
Despite this, Mehta says the growing number of conversations and support around the topic gave the panel confidence.
“We see no likelihood of it going away. It is likely that it will actually be offered,” she said. “However, even though it is taking longer than we would like… the mere fact that this conversation is taking place is already making a difference.”
The International Criminal Court has yet to comment on the panel’s proposal.
Josie Fischels is an intern at the News Desk at NPR.
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